The Serial Tourist's Guide to Jerusalem

January, 2010 - Copyright by Morris Rosenthal - - contact info

The Serial Tourist's Guide to Jerusalem

Copyright 2010 by Morris Rosenthal

All Rights Reserved

Culture Shock

I procrastinated writing this section of the guide for a while, trying to come up with a succinct explanation of why a goodly proportion of Israelis act like total jerks. When I say a "goodly proportion", I don't have a particular number in mind; if 10% of people in the US are jerks, maybe it's 20% in Israel. The point is that it's enough to be immediately noticeable to the Americans who spend enough time in Jerusalem, and it probably bothers the men more than the women. Why? A lot of it has to do with overly aggressive talk - words that would cause any red-blooded American to take a swing in the States are routinely thrown around in Israel by complete strangers. You'll encounter a number of explanations for the lack of civil behavior; the demographic splits of East and West, secular and non-secular, Left and Right, rich and poor. The one thing everybody can agree on is that the "Matzav", the "Situation", keeps them under "Lahatz" - "Pressure".

One of my last nights in Jerusalem this winter, I turned on the TV before going to sleep. The government run Channel 1, which is usually off the air by that time, was broadcasting. That can mean only one thing in Israel, bad news. In this case, a terrorist had shot up a Bat-Mitzvah party in Hadera, killing six and wounding more than 30. Since I'm a tourist, I don't have any role to play in Israel when bad things happen, though I was once interviewed by a French camera crew while taking the #18 bus in Jerusalem the morning after it had been blown up the second time. However, when I turned on the TV the morning after the attack and heard the news on CNN, the BBC and the other European Cable news networks, I found that I was under Lahatz and ready to treat anybody rudely myself.

You see, Israel doesn't exist in a vacuum. Her citizens and supporters are highly sensitive to how the world views them, and television and newspaper pundits engage in endless debates over how they have managed to be so thoroughly trounced in the propaganda war. They wince every time that the military drops a bomb on an empty Palestinian Authority building, knowing that they'll be treated to televised pictures of sobbing Palestinians crying, "Look how they try to murder our babies!" I watched these foreign news broadcasts, in which the terror attack on the Bat Mitzvah was presented as a fair reaction to the Israeli assassination of a Palestinian "militant" who had bragged on Palestinian TV about murdering two restaurant owners who had come to shop in his town amidst their Arab "friends." I felt the Lahatz begin to build, and started looking around for something to punch. The terrorists target innocent civilians, women and children as a matter of strategy, while the Israeli army does the best anybody possibly could in trying to target solely the terrorists. Yet, in the eyes on the world, the Israelis are the aggressors and the terrorists the victims.

To add a little more Lahatz to the mix, I checked my e-mail and found I'd received a letter from a friend in the States. For all of his liberal credentials, he's entirely comfortable asserting that Jews run the American media, which must therefore be pro-Israeli. When I've pointed out to him, story by story, that the news is decidedly pro-Palestinian, even in the wake of the September 11th attacks, he's failed to make the logical leap that either Jews don't run the media, or they aren't all pro-Israel. The format of the news is partially to blame, as cable networks save money on actual reporting by simply inviting guests on two sides to trade accusations, the wilder the better. I suppose if we'd had that kind of coverage during the Cold War the USSR would still be a going concern, and we wouldn't be building up fundamentalist Islam as the new enemy. The same friend was incapable of believing that the Israeli media is free, despite my sending him to the web sites of the leading Israeli papers with English postings. When the Israeli army screws-up and kills innocent civilians, it makes the headlines in Israel and opens the news broadcasts. If there is a gory footage available, they show it. In my experience, the Israeli media is less constrained by patriotic loyalty then the American media. Keep in mind that throughout the current violence, regardless of how many Israelis have died that day, there are "Peace Now" demonstrators gathered in front of the Prime Minister's house expressing their point of view that it's all the fault of the government.

Despite the crazy people blowing themselves up, the one thing I've never felt in Israel is insecure. A first time tourist might be surprised by how many people in the streets are carrying guns, uniformed and not. Israeli soldiers, both men and women, are required to carry their weapon even when they are home on leave, and this policy has saved many lives. It's always causes me a little heartache to see some 5 foot tall 18 year old girl walking down the street with the barrel of her M-16 hitting her in the ankles with each step, but that's the way it's always been. Expect to have your bags checked any time you enter a public space, and "wanding", checking men with a metal detector, has recently become common.

Well, I'd intended to talk about culture shock, and I ended up talking about the security situation. Maybe that's fair, since for the duration, it will probably swamp all of the little aggravations that the American confronts in Israeli culture. Somebody drop me a line when peace breaks out, and I'll give it another try. For the meantime, you'll have to settle for my word that Israelis who are nice are very, very nice. Rather than going out of their way to give you a hard time, they'll cross the street just to ask if you need help finding an address. As you make friends with the special slice of the population who have learned to laugh at the jerks, you'll wonder if they how they could all have grown up in the same society. Israel's landscape is one of stark contrasts, and maybe the population has evolved to match.

I don't pretend to be a political expert and I'm not a news junky, and I stopped watching TV in 2006. I do have a friend who keeps up to date on Israeli politics and Middle East news, along with being an editor for the Jerusalem Post. He's just started an Israel news and analysis site, The Jager Report. You might also be interested in the writings of Shmuel Katz, a staunch Zionist.

Traveling to Israel | Apartments and Rooms | Food and Shopping | Hebrew Ulpan in Jerusalem | Places to Learn | Getting Around | Exercise and Recreation | Culture Shock